Whenever I’m asked my favorite feminist Disney character, I don’t waver. “Why, it’s Cruella de Vil,” I reply without hesitation.
I was 8 years old when “101 Dalmatians” was released. I felt relief when I saw her on the screen.
Cinderella made me anxious. I couldn’t see an ounce of myself in her. Why would she not fight back? Why was she so nice to such awful people? And Bambi? Let’s not even go there. Snow White? How come she had to do all the work for so many of them? And her hair? It wasn’t like mine — perfectly coiffed even after she had been struggling in the woods all that time? Little Red Riding Hood? Was she stupid? Those female characters didn’t reflect my sense of self at all, and if anything, they made me doubt myself.
I stood up to the boys in the playground and insisted they let me play dodgeball with them. My hair had cowlicks in a few unfortunate places, and I had blue glasses with rhinestones, which seemed like a good choice in the store, but not so much when I hit the playground. I had skinned knees and eczema, which I am convinced was caused by my anxiety based on the female characters that stared me down from the enormous cinema screens and made me feel bad about myself. And let’s not even speak about the ridiculous Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music”! Seriously?! Clothes out of curtains? Puhlease.
So imagine my surprise when Cruella de Vil came to me in “101 Dalmatians”: disheveled hair flying out behind her, careening this side of out of control through the streets with a cigarette hanging from her mouth, which reminded me of my mother, furious when she didn’t get her way. I loved her. My friends and I were talking about what we would name our daughters when we had them after marrying some “Prince Charming” or another (I think we can all agree on the misnomer of that myth), and I said, “Cruella. I will name my daughter Cruella.” They thought I was nuts, and clearly, I came to my senses years later when I named my daughter Sarah, but I really liked that she was authentically herself. She made me less ashamed of whom I sometimes felt I was inside. And she was funny; at least, I thought she was. And I never believed she would have all those puppies killed for a coat, and frankly, with the number of fur coats on the women who came to our house for Saturday night dinner parties, I wasn’t really aware that it was an issue.
But the history of the creation of Cruella is what is important too. She was a real character, unlike Snow White or Cinderella.
“Cruella was the creation of Marc Davis. Davis wanted her to be a contemporary woman, and he began searching for someone in the real world whom he could then use as the model for this fiendish fashion maven. And he eventually found her at a cocktail party that he and his wife Alice attended in the late 1950s or early 1960s.
Now, because this woman was a family acquaintance (and, more importantly, because her children are still alive, and let’s face it, no one would ever want to hear that their mother’s awful behavior at a cocktail party over 50 years ago served as the inspiration for the way Cruella de Vil moves and behaves), the Davises have never revealed the name of this woman. However, given that Davis’ original concept sketches for Cruella showed her to be a far more attractive woman … it’s often been suggested that Davis was inspired by one of the wives of the other artists and animators he worked directly with at Disney. But the inspiration for Cruella came from within the Davis family’s very small circle of friends.
That said, in order to further obscure the identity of the acquaintance who inspired the flamboyant way that Cruella moves and acts, Davis had veteran character actress Mary Wickes come in to shoot some live-action reference footage for the film. And a lot of the comic choices that Wickes made Davis then incorporated in Cruella.
But as to who the family friend was who served as the inspiration for this Disney villain, Davis took this secret to the grave when he passed in January 2000. And while his wife Alice is still with us, she honors her husband’s wishes and, to this day, has not revealed who the real-life inspiration for Cruella de Vil is or was.” Excerpt from Huffington Post.
Of course the feminist in me thinks Marc created her as evil so the women emerging at that time would question their right to be assertive? But enough about what the men saw in us and moving right along to what we see in ourselves.
Let’s face it, ladies; we all work hard to overcome that which is inside us that doesn’t sing to our better angels. I remember my therapist (I’ve mentioned him before; he was blind and I realize now that seeing a blind therapist to see yourself more clearly has some real roadblocks) asking me, “When are you going to start behaving the way you want to be remembered?” It was a pivotal moment in my personal quest for greatness, although not particularly helpful in unraveling the complexity of the family in which I grew up and their effect on my personality.
I try every day to behave the way I want to be remembered. But it was Cruella that enabled me to look in the mirror and see that we all have the “bad girl” inside us — or at least Ido, and I will own her. I will apologize when she is unchecked and shows me my worst self. I will see her coming to the doorway of my life, and shut the door in her face when I can. And, I get to control her as long as I don’t pretend she isn’t there. So here’s to Cruella de Vil, my first heroine. And as for Cinderella and Snow White? Bite me, ladies.
Christine Merser, Founder, Screen Thoughts